Warning of legal action as levels of staff stress spiral

June 15, 2007

Occupational health adviser issues frank letter to Leeds Metropolitan over the psychological wellbeing of its academic workforce. Melanie Newman reports.

Staff stress has become such a problem at Leeds Metropolitan University that its own occupational health adviser has warned that the university is vulnerable to legal action with "far-reaching consequences".

Neil Shaw, who has provided occupational health consultancy services to the university for several years, issued a frank warning to the university's health and safety committee chairs in March this year.

In a letter seen by The Times Higher , Dr Shaw said he had "noticed an ever-increasing number of staff presenting to the department complaining of symptoms of psychological ill-health" linked to their work.

He warned the university that it could be vulnerable to legal action because it has a duty to be pro-active in reducing the risk that staff might suffer from work-related ill-health.

"I would advise Leeds Met to consider the contents of this letter before an incident occurs that could have far-reaching consequences," he warned.

The letter emerged as the University and College Union said that almost a third of academic staff who responded to a union survey had considered "taking revenge" on managers whom they considered to be bullies.

While there was no evidence any of the respondents had acted on such thoughts, one respondent indicated that revenge might mean deliberately not doing a good job "because it would reflect well on the dean if the students are happy and well taught".

The survey, by the local UCU branch, showed that 68 per cent of of 8 staff who responded had suffered stress because of bullying from their managers, and more than 60 per cent had witnessed bullying and 15 per cent had been shouted at by a line manager.

A Leeds Met UCU representative said: "The vice-chancellor claims that the university aims to enhance wellbeing by promoting an ethical, healthy environment, ethos and community.

"The reality, revealed by the preliminary results of this survey, is very different. Besides the high levels of stress and anxiety, the survey reveals a climate of fear, with 96 per cent of those surveyed reporting that they felt inhibited about criticising university policy."

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: "A decent work-life balance is crucial to staff being able to do their jobs properly."

Leeds Met said the UCU survey lacked credibility because of the "tiny"

number of responses. It added that Dr Shaw had, in other correspondence, praised the university's efforts to improve staff wellbeing.

The university was "embarking on several significant initiatives to support the wellbeing of staff", including the appointment of a new "independent facilitator" to work with staff to identify areas of concern, and the implementation of a "far-reaching two-year action plan to ensure that the university meets the new Investors in People standard".

The university's anti-harassment network is to be relaunched. The revamped network will be "supported by the appointment of a permanent anti-harassment officer, who will be supported by a university-wide network of trained counsellors".

Leeds Met also intends to review the occupational health service to ensure that it can "provide proactive as well as a reactive support to employees who have personal and work difficulties".


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